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Rahul set to open in second England Test

Wisden India logo Wisden India 15-11-2016
© AP Photo

KL Rahul, the Karnataka opener, is set to join the Indian team as its 16th member for the second Test against England, starting at the ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium here on Thursday (November 17).

Rahul, 24, was fast on his way to establishing himself as the first-choice opening partner for M Vijay when he sustained an untimely hamstring injury during the first Test against New Zealand in Kanpur towards the end of September. In his absence, and with Shikhar Dhawan also out with a fractured finger, Gautam Gambhir made his comeback to international cricket in the third Test of that series in Indore.

Gambhir, the experienced 35-year-old left-hand batsman with 58 Test caps to his name, has made scores of 29, 50, 29 and 0 in his last four Test innings against New Zealand and England combined. While he did show flair, courage and selflessness in the second innings of the Indore Test when he retired hurt with a shoulder injury and then returned to make an aggressive half-century with the team pushing for a declaration, he was less than impressive in the drawn first Test against England in Rajkot.

Rahul, meanwhile, is back in full fitness. After a stint of recovery and rehab at the National Cricket Academy, he was asked – like all Indian players aspiring to return to international cricket from injury-enforced breaks – to prove his fitness as much as form in at least one first-class game. The classy right-hand opener ticked all the boxes on his comeback for Karnataka against Rajasthan in Vizianagaram. On Sunday, he made a sparkling 76, then showed no signs of discomfort on the field when Karnataka bowled out Rajasthan in just 54 overs during Monday’s second day.

Further reiterating his form and his full recovery, Rahul topped his up half-century with a hundred in the second innings on Tuesday morning, as good as sealing his place in the playing XI for the second Test in place of Gambhir. In a matter of 131 deliveries, he danced his way to 106 with 13 fours and four sixes and was dismissed shortly before lunch. That the Karnataka team is staying in Visakhapatnam – Vizianagaram is less than 60 kilometres away – is another factor that ought to weigh in favour of Rahul’s inclusion, especially with Karnataka having already made the most of his batting services in this game.

Rahul’s has been a stop-start Test career since his debut against Australia in Melbourne in December 2014. After a forgettable first game batting in the middle order, he made a brilliant century in the next in his favoured and specialist opening position, only to play second fiddle to the Vijay-Dhawan combine despite making another hundred in Sri Lanka, also last year. It wasn’t until the tour of the West Indies earlier this year that he smashed the doors open, even if it was an injury to Vijay in the first Test in St John’s that allowed him the opening for the second game Kingston.

With knocks of 158, 50 and 28, he was the automatic choice to open against New Zealand in Kanpur and, in tricky conditions, made two excellent 30s (32 and 38) to give India the initiative at the start of both innings. It was during that second-innings cameo that he sustained the hamstring tear which, as it turned out, was a lot more serious than initially suspected.

© Reuters Image

Gambhir’s failure to grab his chances, and Rahul’s fitness as well as runs for Karnataka on his comeback, have all but hastened his return to international cricket, even though when the selectors announced the 15-man Test squad earlier this month, it was supposed to be for the first two games.

In his nine Tests and 15 innings to date, Rahul has made 562 runs at an average of 37.46, with three hundreds and that lone fifty in the Caribbean. He has opened with Vijay in seven of those knocks with modest success, though the last time they opened – in Kanpur – they came up with salvos of 42 and 52.

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